The ball ended up in Luke Kennard’s hands at the end, the very end, as time expired, when all he could do with it was slam it to the court in celebration.
That’s where the ball needs to stay. No one may have expected this talented Duke team loaded with NBA-bound stars to be Kennard’s team, but it is. As far as he can take it.
Kennard, and not Grayson Allen or Jayson Tatum, scored 30 of his 34 points in the second half Saturday as Duke erased a 10-point halftime deficit at Wake Forest. Kennard curled off a Harry Giles baseline screen to hit an open 3-pointer from the right wing, the game-winner with 6.6 seconds to go. And Kennard was the difference in an 85-83 win, with a performance that should set the tone for the rest of Duke’s season.
In the aftermath of the events of this week, from the N.C. State loss to the team meeting at Mike Krzyzewski’s house and locker-room ban, all as reported by ESPN – one of Krzyzewski’s oldest motivational gambits, his medical exile notwithstanding – Duke’s season could go one of two ways, starting Saturday.
Either Duke would figure out what works, giving Duke a chance to become the juggernaut it was supposed to be, or the future would have been almost too dark to contemplate.
“It’s been hell,” Matt Jones said. “It’s been so tough, not only physically but mentally. But for the guys to really show resiliency and to come out here and fight hard like we did and overcome so much and get this win, we took a big step today in the right direction.”
In the crucible of this difficult week Duke finally got an answer to the question it hadn’t been able to adequately address.
Is this Allen’s team, as many expected it to be before his effectiveness was compromised by the mental baggage he’s clearly carrying, even if it’s entirely of his own making?
Is this Tatum’s team, as the team’s best NBA prospect certainly expected it to be when he came to Duke, perhaps under the reasonable assumption that Allen would turn pro after his sophomore year?
Is this Kennard’s team, as it was by default early in the season, when Tatum was out and Allen was dinged up and Kennard took over?
Or is it no one’s team, in the absence of a point guard capable of holding everything together?
Now, Duke has the answer.
It is, after Saturday’s second half, clearly Kennard’s team.
That’s what the statistics say, with Kennard the team’s most efficient offensive player by a wide margin. That’s what the evidence now says, at the most desperate moment of Duke’s season.
Tatum’s go-it-alone offense killed Duke while it frittered away its lead against N.C. State on Monday – Tatum went 0-for-4 during that stretch, even before dribbling the ball off his foot on the final possession – and it’s clear that Duke is a better team when others shoot more. It wasn’t an issue at the end Saturday, because Tatum fouled out with seven minutes to go and eight points on 2-for-6 shooting.
Saturday was one of Allen’s best offensive performances since the one-game tripping suspension, but whether because of injury (early) or distraction (lately) he hasn’t been the player he was last year. Controversy follows him around now, whether he’s the instigator or not (and he was not in either incident that resulted in technical fouls being assessed Saturday).
Kennard had the ball in his hands at the end. Duke won. With Duke’s season hanging in the balance, after a first half that showed Duke had learned nothing, Kennard took over. It’s probably not how anyone expected it to be, and it may not make everyone happy, but that’s how it has to be.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock